Breaking2: marathon’s moon-shot

Jack Rennison breaks down Elias Kipchoge's valiant attempt, in conjunction with Nike, to try and run the first two-hour marathon; Running's last Everest.

Photo: Running Magazine CA

“Breaking the two-hour marathon barrier is impossible. Everyone knows that. History knows it. Science knows it. Anyone in their right mind knows it. It’s crazy. Nobody can run that fast for that long. So, we’re doing it.”

These words, taken from the advert for Nike’s Breaking2 project epitomise the magnitude of the challenge facing Eliud Kipchoge, Zersenay Tadese and Lelisa Desisa today, as they attempted to make history. On the 63rd anniversary of Roger Bannister’s breaking of the four-minute mile, history was made and the Nike runners “did it.” Kipchoge, leaving the other two behind at the halfway stage, ran a world best marathon in two hours and 25 seconds. Although the two-hour barrier eluded the athletes today, Kipchoge’s run smashed the current world record of 2:02:57, showing what is humanly possible in the field of endurance athletics.

Back in November I first wrote on the possibility of breaking the two-hour barrier, drawing comparisons to running’s last Everest; the final major peak or record to be conquered. Despite the barrier remaining unbroken, Nike’s Breaking2 will remain a remarkable experiment in human endurance. Speaking in April, Sandy Bodecker, Nike’s vice president of special events described the two-hour barrier as “one of those rare ones that, if broken, can transform a sport.” A self-proclaimed fanatic, complete with a tattoo of his dream (1.59.59) on the inside of his left wrist, Bodecker believes that when the record does fall, it “will impact the way runners view distance running and human potential forever.”

In many ways, this is true. Not only has Kipchoge accelerated the progress towards the seemingly impossible, but the developments in sports science and sports apparel which have accompanied Nike’s project look set to revolutionise marathon running. A new metaphor has emerged to contextualise today’s run. Breaking2 is a “moon-shot” moment. A one-time attempt at the impossible, akin to the 1959 moon landing. The vast technological and psychological gains made today will transform the way the marathon is approached forever. These new approaches, whilst they violate the conditions required for an official IAAF world record, have pioneered various aspects of running.

The venue

The racetrack at Monza, just north of Milan, was specially selected to host this event.  At 600ft above sea level, the flat track and cool Italian spring conditions were selected to offer the athletes the best possible chance of making history. The race was scheduled to be run within a three-day window, allowing for ideal conditions to be guaranteed, a far-cry from the city marathons.

The nutrition

Specialised energy drinks, tailored to each athlete, were designed to deliver them their optimal nutrition throughout the race, maximising their potential. Scientists atop bicycles were deployed to deliver the energy drinks required by the runners, allowing them to maintain a greater efficiency and speed by not slowing down or veering off course to collect bottles from water stations, as is normally seen in races.

The pacers

Overcoming wind resistance is the key obstacle for any human determined to move fast. A specialised diamond formation was used to overcome this resistance, permitting the athletes to run with a greater efficiency. The twenty runners selected alongside the three main contenders acted as pacers, subbing in and out to maintain the necessary speed to run a sub two-hour marathon. The support these pacers offered Kipchoge, cheering him down the final straight, shows the camaraderie involved in Breaking2. There is no glory in pacing, no headlines will be written about them. Their determination to interrupt their own training schedules and chances to race this year to focus on this record attempt, shows not only an incredible selflessness, but the significance of this record for the wider running community.

The equipment

The world’s first glance at Nike’s specially designed shoe, the Zoom Vaporfly Elite, over 26.2 miles did not disappoint. Abandoning their early conceptions of creating a marathon flat, Nike listened to the athletes and produced a trainer with greater comfort. Custom tailored for the three athletes, the new shoe is designed to make the athletes 4% more efficient than previous models. There are innovations throughout the shoe. The Zoomex foam base is designed to retain energy at a rate of around 85% – surpassing Adidas’ market-leading 70% energy retention – and is one-third lighter than previous Nike shoes. A carbon-fibre plate runs the length of the shoe, offering a stiff board from which to propel the runners. The extreme point at the rear of the shoe, the foot-hugging narrow profile and the super-light monofilament mitt top, are all designed for a tight aerodynamic fit. The extreme width across the ball of the foot will keep the runners from rolling of their stride, offering a supportive base to maintain the 4.40 pace required.

Further considerations of wind resistance were seen on the compression shorts and leg tape worn by the athletes today. Small bumps on the runners’ legs were designed to help the athlete cut through the air and could be seen in future city marathons.

One big publicity stunt?

The BBC’s correspondent, Richard Conway, raised the question of Breaking2 being an elaborate marketing stunt for Nike. The fastest marathon of all time will see Nike profit enormously. In June, the shoe tycoon will offer everyone a chance to wear a version of the historical shoe when two versions are released for public consumption. The 4% version boasts all the same attributes as the Vaporfly Elite, bar the custom-tailoring, and will retail at $250. Although the 4%’s target audience is the serious running community, a second version with omits the carbon-fibre plate will be available for around $150. Shoe sales should be expected to be extremely popular.

For now, the wait goes on and the “impossible” remains just that. Reflecting on his achievements, Kipchoge concluded that the world is now only 25 seconds away from breaking the barrier. Shaving two and a half minutes of the current world record is a phenomenal feat which singles out Kipchoge as the best marathon-runner in history. Whether Nike will orchestrate a second attempt remains uncertain for now. It may take some time for another runner of Kipchoge’s quality to emerge and break the record, but the world will produce one. Bridging the gap to the “impossible” has never been closer. Nike’s innovation and ambition certainly represents a “giant leap” for marathon running and whoever does make those small steps for mankind, need only to take them a little faster than today.


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